Issue 68 (2020)

Boris Akopov: The Bull (Byk, 2019)

reviewed by Rita Safariants © 2020

byk Boris Akopov’s debut feature film The Bull (Byk, 2019) is a criminal drama set in a Moscow suburb in 1997 during the economically depressed late-Yeltsin period, when criminal activity permeated every layer of society. Institutions of social welfare were crumbling, and the younger generation was left largely to fend for itself, giving rise to delinquency, drug abuse, family dysfunction, and urban decay. The film’s plot follows the protagonist, Anton Bykov with the nickname “Bull” (byk means bull in Russian), an ex-con and leader of a street gang, specializing in rival gang violence, bodybuilding, and car theft, until he is recruited by a corrupt town official to undertake a dangerous mission involving a violent kidnapping, which endangers his life and the lives of those close to him. The Bull was released in Russia in the summer of 2019 and enjoyed a warm domestic critical reception, winning the Grand Prix at the Kinotavr Film Festival and becoming one of six films included in Russia’s submission to the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

bykThe last decade has seen numerous Russian films and television productions dedicated to reimagining the past for the consumption of the millennial spectator. Valerii Todorovskii’s musical Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008), in addition to his television serial The Thaw (Ottepel’, 2013) as well as Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer (Leto, 2018) are some of the most prominent cinematic depictions of the quotidian reality of post-war and late-Soviet youth during periods of cultural transition. Akopov’s film is yet another attempt to cinematically encapsulate a socio-politically formative historical period. What makes The Bull especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that Akopov’s is one of the first cinematic “period” treatments of the pre-Putin post-Soviet era, known colloquially as the “wild nineties” (likhie devianostye), presenting a twenty-first-century meditation on the waning years of Boris Yeltsin’s political tenure in a crime-ridden provincial town. The film is significant, also, in that it firmly establishes the 1990s as a fully mythologized past—something that in Akopov’s imagination is finite, colossally consequential, and ultimately irredeemable. 
 
The Bull begins with a scene of an armed conflict between two rival provincial gangs. It is initially unclear that Anton Bykov is the film’s protagonist and fearsome gang leader. Of slight build and speaking with a stutter, he makes for an unlikely gangster, especially within the context of the nineties’ character trope of the cold-blooded young killer, which naturally conjures up the films of Aleksei Balabanov and begs comparisons to Danila Bagrov, Russia’s most loveable cinematic hitman from Brother (Brat, 1997) and Brother 2 (Brat-2, 2000). Danila, who simultaneously caricatured and personified the masculine ideal for post-Soviet youth, became a cultural icon in the late nineties, despite his natural aptitude towards violence, xenophobia, and unbridled nationalism. While retaining some of Danila’s characteristics, in many ways Anton Bykov is the anti-Danila. He lacks the physical strength and virility of Balabanov’s hero—early in the film we find out that Anton suffers from a congenital heart condition, which, along with the vengeance of a rival criminal group, eventually leads to his demise. Byk’s character arc is imbued with loyalty and responsibility both to his family and the members of his criminal brotherhood, which provides much of the psychological justification behind his decisions, and especially for his final act of self-sacrifice. Anton is protective of his younger sister Ania (portrayed by Afina Kondrashova), whom he defends from their mother’s wrath when the pre-teen comes home donning heavy makeup and a Princess Leia coif, in the spirit of the ubiquitous rave culture that sparked the interest of Russian youth around the dawn of the new millennium. Anton also shows an almost paternal concern for his younger brother Misha, whom he implores to continue with university studies to avoid following a criminal path.

byk Working to augment Balabanov’s narrative, The Bull cinematizes Russia’s ongoing national crisis of masculinity with Anton acting not as a personified ideal of the pre-Putin Russian man (as depicted by Danila), but rather as a victim of the historical moment during which he came of age. At its best, The Bull explores the ambiguities of historicizing the concepts of crime and order; honor and deceit; family ties opposing those forged by communal struggle—all the while raising questions about the socio-political precursors to Russia’s present historical moment. The film makes references to Russia’s economic decline, corruption, the Chechen conflict, and fourth-wave emigration, while boasting an impressively curated soundtrack replete with electronica, Russian Chanson, and pop music.

There is a steady sense in Akopov’s film that much of the suffering experienced by Byk and those close to him could have been avoided if it had not been for the sociopolitical conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As mentioned earlier, The Bull’s project of reifying the historical space of the post-Soviet nineties is executed from a decidedly millennial vantage point, a generation for whom this period constituted a lived experience only peripherally—the nineties were an ordeal of mythical proportions endured almost entirely by parents and grandparents, surviving first-hand only in the bursts and snippets of childhood recollections. The film is therefore an exercise in piecing together the “wild nineties” into an easily digestible whole, which—despite the often-impeccable mise-en-scene—at times reads as laboriously encyclopedic. Each major character in the film represents a specific cultural emblem or social ill of Russia in the throes of economic catastrophe. Anton’s family of three siblings and their exhausted anxiety-ridden mother, for instance, is exemplary of the rampant problem of absentee fatherhood (bezotsovshchina) typical for many families around the time of USSR’s collapse. Byk’s love interest, Tania (played by Stasia Miloslavskaia), who also happens to be his younger brother Misha’s former classmate and romantic obsession, is equal parts Vasilii Pichul’s Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera, 1988) and Petr Todorovskii’s Intergirl (Interdevochka, 1989). As a provincial hairdresser, party girl, and rumored prostitute, Tania makes plans to marry an American and leave Russia for good. Byk’s close childhood friend and fellow gang member Douglass (played by Sergei Dvoinikov), in turn, personifies the post-Soviet heroin addiction epidemic. Douglass ultimately betrays Byk after being kidnapped by members of the Chechen mafia and forced into withdrawal in an attempt to seek revenge for Anton’s gang raiding a market and apprehending a prisoner held for ransom.

bykThe Bull is hence as much a crime drama as it is a statement on the social ills commonly associated with the early post-Soviet period: the two Chechen wars, organized crime, corruption, violence, juvenile delinquency, drug use, and prostitution. In contrast to Balabanov’s decidedly ironic and darkly comedic treatment of these themes, Akopov’s film is starkly earnest and didactic, almost reminiscent of the late-Soviet socially conscious “youth film,” where the brunt of the responsibility was largely bestowed upon the neglectful parents and guardians, often symbolic of the government itself. It is therefore important to mention that in Akopov’s plotline, Byk’s aforementioned embodied masculinity is notably self-made. With a lack of a clear male role model, Byk learns to survive and fend for himself and is quite successful in his assertion of authority, something that the older generation is either unable to achieve, or incapable of doing in an ethical manner. The generation of fully established adults within the film tends to fall into two general categories: the irredeemably corrupt (the police) or helplessly resigned (Anton’s single mother), positioning Byk and his street gang as the sole possessors of agency and a semblance of a moral compass under the conditions of social and economic duress. The only two semblances of a male role model for Byk that we see in the film come in the form of a corrupt police chief, who threatens to fabricate a case against our hero while swigging cognac from a porcelain teacup, and the highly positioned local boss Moisei (aka Uncle Victor), who uses his privilege to collaborate with the mafia for personal gain.

In fact, the question of morality in The Bull can be read as almost didactically generational. And here Akopov aptly relies on his carefully constructed soundtrack to stratify Russian society under the Yeltsin regime. Russian Chanson, for example, is a key generational signifier within the film. In the scene where Byk receives his assignment from Moisei, the father of one of his former fellow convicts, Russian Chanson informs the entirety of their interaction. The meeting takes place in a provincial night club where Moisei performs an off-key rendition of a criminal song. “You know, Lelia, I would kill for you,” he croons before gesturing to Byk to have a seat at the nearest table. It becomes immediately clear from the song lyrics that Moisei was behind Byk’s release from police custody, a favor meant to buy Byk’s loyalty and pressure him to undertake a dangerous prisoner kidnapping from the local Chechen mafia. While Byk and Moisei discuss logistics of the operation, the chanson hit “I will buy you a house” (Ia kupliu tebe dom) by the popular chanson variety band Lesopoval plays in the background. The song’s narrator addresses his beloved with a series of unlikely yet sincere promises of a new life, which include a house in the country, a lilac grove and white swans in a pond. Akopov relies on his audience’s familiarity with the lyrics to highlight Byk as a tragic hero, whose aspirations and moral stoicism is unlikely to materialize into a better life for himself or his loved ones. An enduringly popular musical genre, which effectively romanticizes, empathizes with, and consequently normalizes criminality, or at least gestures at its veritable ubiquity during Yeltsin’s “wild nineties,” Russian Chanson is aligned with a figure of “mature corruption” in Akopov’s film, a force which ultimately leads to the young protagonist’s death.

bykElectronic music also plays a prominent thematic role in Akopov’s story. Russia’s rave culture, which was one of the more ubiquitous and influential global youth subcultures of the late 1990s and early 2000s, also becomes a marker of the rifts in Russian society. Anton’s romantic interest Tania is the conduit that introduces the protagonist to electronic music and the rave experience with its share of excesses, but also an undeniable creative vibrancy that provided Russia’s youth a respite from the struggles of life during an economic downturn. However, the director opts out of any substantive exploration of post-Soviet rave as a cultural phenomenon, and instead takes cues from Balabanov’s playbook in depicting western music as morally suspect and inherently antithetical to the true Russian spirit. The rave scene, to which Tania takes Anton after he extends the chivalrous offer of a car ride, reveals the clichéd milieu of the post-Soviet nineties: the opulence, excess, and decadence of newly acquired post-Soviet freedom. Anton meets an array of Tania’s friends at the rave, who are presented as caricatures of the bohemian, LGBTQ-friendly and non-conformist factions of the newly pluralistic communal spirit of the Yeltsin years. In Akopov’s film, alternative youth culture largely presents a negative influence on Tania. After being offered a hallucinogenic pill, she loses consciousness and must be rescued by Byk, who carries her out of the dance club slung over his shoulder.

One of the strongest thematic devices in Akopov’s film is the ever-present lens of childhood. Despite the aforementioned sociopolitical commentary on the late-Yeltsin period, Akopov’s own boyhood aligns with the temporal setting of his film, imbuing the experience of children in his narrative with an added emotional potency. The child’s perspective, therefore, is one of the most important thematic angles provided by the cinematic narrative, most prominently personified on screen by Byk’s pre-teen sister Ania, who functions as an unwilling and often accidental witness of the violence inflicted upon, and often at the hands of, Byk’s gang. As Anton’s youngest sibling, she is emblematic of the protagonist’s protective instinct, as well as the face of the generation of post-Soviet millennials, who are fast becoming the primary cultural producers and consumers in a nation still grappling with understanding and, in many ways, redefining its past. In an interview to Esquire magazine, Akopov revealed that a number of the scenes featuring children were taken from his own biographical experience. Raised in the Moscow suburb of Balashikha, the director claims to have been an eyewitness of brutal gang violence at an early age (Akopov in Minaev 2019). Afina Kondrashova’s nuanced portrayal of Ania as both an innocent bystander and yet a seasoned survivor of emotional trauma works to Akopov’s advantage in contextualizing the formative stresses of the early post-Soviet childhood, which could very well explain the seemingly bewildering popularity of Vladimir Putin’s static conservatism with a large percentage of Russia’s youth.

bykThe film’s tragic finale is both predictable and surprising. The metaphorical cadence of Byk’s demise at the hands of the Chechens reads as a narrative of self-sacrifice, which is loaded with religious undertones (Byk can certainly be interpreted as a post-Soviet Christ figure), and is also a decidedly Soviet cinematic trope, which Katerina Clark (1981, 49) has established as a staple of the Socialist Realist novelistic master plot, functioning as a fated inevitability in Akopov’s storyline. Byk is therefore, quite predictably, a gangster with a broken heart-of-gold when he sacrifices his life in order to save innocent people. In contrast to the Soviet martyrdom narrative, however, Byk’s only possible “heir,” his younger brother Misha, proves ultimately disappointing. As a character who, from the outset, is marked as a mere pretender, he forfeits Anton’s stoicism in the face of death for commonplace human fear. Despite making the decision to quit university and enlist in the army, Misha’s last scene in the film shows him in tears over the fact that he might get killed, only to be comforted by stone-faced traumatized Tania, who instructs him to leave town. The film closes with a broadcast of Yeltsin’s final televised New Year’s address on the eve of the new millennium, during which he famously asks for Russia’s forgiveness before announcing his resignation from the presidential post. Akopov’s treatment of this scene is self-consciously ambiguous—Anton’s mother is shown with tears streaming down her face, while Tania, who now has a visible scar across her jaw, watches with a look of disdain and disgust. As the credits roll and Akopov’s dedication to his parents is revealed, it is difficult not to wonder whether The Bull is yet another attempt at anti-nostalgia, and, by default, apologetic of the current regime. Curiously, the trailer of the film boasted a dedication to “all, who survived the nineties,” a gesture that is both a reflection of pride in the nation’s resilience, and a cautionary tale against returning to a time of childhood horrors—a fully bygone chapter of history that Akopov’s debut interprets and reimagines for the post-Soviet millennial generation.

 

Rita Safariants
University of Rochester

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Works Cited

Clark, Katerina. 1981. The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Minaev, Sergei. 2019. “Rezhisser ‘Byka’ Boris Akopov – o banditakh 1990-kh, detstve v Balashikhe i interese k marginal’nym storonam zhizni.” (Interview). Esquire 3 December.


The Bull, Russia, 2019.
Color, 99 minutes.
Director and Scriptwriter: Boris Akopov
Cinematography: Gleb Filatov
Director of Photography: Nikita Evgelevskii, Vania Bouden
Composer: Anton Bulle, Boris Akopov
Editing: Boris Akopov
Cast: Yuri Borisov, Stasia Miloslavskaia, Afina Kondrashova, Egor Kenzhametov, Aleksandr Samsonov, Igor Savochkin, Aleksei Filimonov, Sergei Dvoinikov
Producers: Fedor Popov, Vladimir Malyshev
Production: VGIK Debut

Boris Akopov: The Bull (Byk, 2019)

reviewed by Rita Safariants © 2020

Updated: 2020